Sunday, November 1, 2015

Mary as a Mask

If the turn toward emotion in the most recent readings was not prompted by a spontaneous desire for a closer personal relationship with God, or the need for some sort of collective cathartic release, then the question remains why this sudden interest in Mary’s emotional and physical response to the Passion?

The tradition of Marian devotion has established Mary, because of her perfect vision and purity, as the lens through which mankind can see God.  Previously this has been put into practice by reading scripture through Mary, so that the signs of Christ’s coming can be seen. The meditations on the Passion seem to take the idea of “seeing God through Mary” and push it into literality. Because she has perfect vision, the way to see God properly is to see him as she does, through her eyes. She still acts as a mediator between the mortal and the divine, just as she did in bearing Christ, but now she is a mask to be slipped on, rather than a textual interpreter. Playing out the idea that when God is seen through Mary, it is through her physical eyes, the focus on the Passion begins to make sense. Christ’s death is perhaps the most important occurrence she ever witnesses; she sees the embodied God act to save the souls of all mankind. If Christians wanted to see God through Mary’s physical eyes then this would be the moment to do so.

 Wrapping one’s head around the idea of seeing God is a daunting if not impossible task. God is, almost by definition, that which is beyond human comprehension of conception, outside of time and space. He is unable to be contained within the mortal world, i.e. unable to be properly perceived by humans – held or contained within their minds. The exception here is, of course Mary. She contained God within her womb, and because she has perfect vision, presumably can contain him within her mind as well. The Crucifixion is a moment that both heightens this impossibility and conversely also lowers it. God dies. God, who made the universe, who made Mary, dies. It is even more difficult to understand how this thing that is God could die, than to understand what this thing that is God is. However, along with God, Mary’s fleshly son who she made also dies. Mary has perfect vision and therefore possesses the ability to perceive both these events; the death of God, her creator, and of Christ, her son. Mary’s relationship to both sides of this duality lowers the impossibility of seeing God at the moment of the Crucifixion.

Mary’s response to the Crucifixion also make an ideal focus for the project of attempting to get behind her eyes, because her deep emotional distress and its attendant physical manifestations are a result of both of the events that she sees. While trying to perfectly understand God and his death is beyond the immediate grasp of most people (in fact beyond that of all people aside from the Virgin Mary, which is the whole point of this exercise) the loss of a loved one, such as a son, is far more comprehensible. Mary’s pain at the loss of her son acts as an entry point for getting inside her head so that one could eventually see through her eyes. Within her the two losses are irreversibly linked. Ideally, one would eventually, with prayer and meditation, move from perceiving her mourning as being of Jesus, her son, to being of the Lord her God; progressing along the chain in which she is the crucial connecting link.

The distinct physical manifestation Mary’s grief takes provides an additional link to the older tradition of Marian service, as well as a secondary means of access to her sight. Service in the Marian tradition has so far involved real, physical, work. Mary’s servants go on pilgrimages, tumble, and most commonly sing. Singing, aside from being physically demanding also produces sound. If one has properly internalized Mary’s pain while contemplating the crucifixion, then one should also be producing the tears that are so highlighted in Marian accounts of the Passion. Crying is quite obviously and audible action, but it can also be incredibly physical as well. Crying, with the proper intent, is in some way, and acceptable act of service toward Mary. Re-creating the physical manifestation of Mary’s suffering also begins to put one within her headspace. This is a in some ways a lesser point of entry, even further from true comprehension of God than a recreation of Mary’s emotional state. This is however, a very physical interpretation of “seeing God through Mary” so it remains important that the physical aspects of inhabiting Mary as she was at the crucifixion are not ignored. Of these, the ways in which her eyes, through which people wanted to see, are the most worthy of note, aside from how generally physically drained she was. If, as the meditations say, she spent almost the entirety of the event weeping, then to truly see God as she did, one would have to look out through a veil of tears.

There are many aspects of the focus on emotional contemplation that seem strange or over the top, particularly when examined individually. However when considered alongside the ongoing tradition of Marian devotion, while still quite dramatic, a method and purpose begins to emerge which places this type of contemplation more in line with its forbearers than is immediately obvious.

- M. Coker


  1. Very nice meditation on the way in which the texts that we read encourage readers to see through Mary's eyes as a way to seeing God. I would have liked to have been given more examples from our texts to demonstrate the kind of vision that you argue they invoke, particularly the contrast between Mary as a lens through which to read Scripture and Mary as the one who herself is able to see God: are these two ways of seeing in fact distinct or are they two aspects of the same process? I wonder, too, about whether seeing through Mary's eyes actually "lowers the impossibility of seeing God at the Crucifixion" or whether it makes the paradox of seeing God all the more poignant. We need to pay careful attention to exactly how our authors describe these moments of seeing! RLFB

  2. Very interesting points about the physicality of the Marian devotion we find in the Mater Dolorosa readings as links in a contemplative chain. It certainly seems plausible to me. It would be interesting to consider what sort of seeing we ultimately experience through this sort of meditation, you say that it's a literal seeing through Mary's eyes, and I think that's to some degree correct, it is a very real type of vision, but of course it would be impossible to truly see through her bodily eyes. So what's going on here? What type of vision are we talking about and how does conditioning the body through tears and thoughts of anguish bring it about?

  3. I agree that Marian devotion often includes physical elements and especially in the dolorosa readings, emotional considerations. However, how do these physical and emotional aspects fit with the commentary about Mary’s soul? In Bernard’s lamentation, the persona of Mary says “”I saw him dying, whom my soul loved, and my soul was completely dissolved by the anguish of sorrow’” (171). Later on Mary’s soul is described as “pale,” and she says that her soul has “fainted” (177, 184). Professor Fulton Brown connects this point to Augustine by saying that he conceives of pain happening to the soul (454). I still find the soul imagery interesting to compare to the more tangible and concrete images. I find the dolorosa stories compelling because of their earthly connections. Conversely, the concept of the soul somehow seems less tied to physical elements of Mary’s suffering. Perhaps my modern thinking about the soul is clouding my thinking about the dolorosa stories. As Professor Fulton Brown mentioned in class, these stories were used as meditations. Perhaps the speaking of souls connects to the more mystical elements of the tradition or maybe I am being completely anachronistic.


  4. The author of this post makes an interesting point bringing up the physical aspects of Mary’s grief. But, aside from the physical manifestations of grief through crying that Mary displays and that a believer could imitate as a service to Mary and to get closer to Christ I think it is worth considering in general the physical presence of Mary at the foot of the cross. Mary would have been totally justified, in my opinion, had she not been at the foot of the cross. As a mother, let alone the Mother of God who is now dying, it would make sense if she wanted to suffer from afar and not watch the horrific way in which the life was being taken from the son to whom she gave life. But Mary chooses to be physically present and close to Christ in these last moments. This is tremendously important for believers. Just as Mary brought Christ into the world making his redemption available for all, by being present at his death she again makes Christ and his redemption available to all. By being courageous enough to face the cross Mary shows believers that they too can approach the cross in order to receive God’s saving grace. It is fitting for Mary to be an integral part to both the beginning and end of Christ’s life on earth and it is through her that believers can image what it was like to be in either of these pivotal moments.